Join Prism Book Alliance® as Atom Yang goes Outside the Margins today.
Before I begin, I want to let readers know that my mother hasn’t finished reading “Red Envelope” yet, and I don’t plan to push her. Again, I don’t take it personally when friends and families have no interest in my work, or choose not to read a story I’ve written, or don’t finish reading. Once the story leaves my nimble fingers, it doesn’t belong to me. (I’ll keep you posted if she finishes it, though.)
What does belong to me when it comes to writing is that I don’t merely want to tell you a story; I want to tell you a story well—and to do that takes both “hard” and “soft” skills.
Now, before you start snickering, I didn’t make up those terms. I got it from The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle. They’re fifty-two tips on how to engage with deliberate or “deep” practice (stop snickering, I said) to help you do something better. To improve, you have to know what to improve; once you know what, you have to know how. Measuring (stop already!) is also necessary, because what you can measure, you can potentially change.
So what’s a hard skill? Something that requires precision and has a beginning and an end. For writing, typing would be a great example. There are hunt-and-peckers (I swear I’m not doing this on purpose) out there, and people who live by their long hand. Ultimately, your hard skills define your limits in exercising your craft, and improving or getting around them is key to doing something better. You can learn to type, increase your typing speed, learn shortcuts or shorthand, or even give up the keyboard and pen altogether and dictate—but whatever you do, if you want to improve overall as a writer, you’ve got to seek improvement of your hard skills. This is important when it comes to writing more, and writing quickly. Measuring is easy for hard skills: you’re either writing faster or you’re not when you count your words per minute.
However, writing isn’t just about quantity.
A soft skill uses intuition (knowing something without knowing how you know it) and emotion, and is much more difficult to quantify. In writing, it would be the sense of rhythm an author has for sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; it’s a feeling for words and punctuation like a maestro has for notes and pauses. There’s a bit of arbitrariness when it comes to soft skills because they often depend on subjective criticism: we decide what we think is beautiful and well composed when we create something. However, with the distance provided by time, we can look back and, it is hoped, see where we have improved—sentences are clearer in meaning, images are more striking and unique. Immediate means of improvement can be reading your work aloud to yourself or recording your story and listening to it later, to compare what was in your head or on the page with what it literally sounds like outside your head. Even better would be to get feedback from people whose opinions you trust. Did they cry when you expected them to cry, laugh when you wanted them to laugh? Did they understand what you were trying to convey, not just emotionally, but intellectually? Did they have suggestions for how the structure could be tightened up? Measuring improvement for soft skills requires more creativity and fluidity—neither counting tears nor sales ranking really tells you if you’ve made magic, I’d argue. With soft skills, you’ve got to pick your measurement: do readers compare your works and tell you which one had better pacing, or do you stumble less over your words when reading a passage for your latest book compared to the one before that?
My purpose is to tell you as many great stories as I can squeeze in while I’m here. That’s going to take speed, sense, and style. They say it takes ten thousand hours or pages before you get to the good stuff, and what they—the researchers on expertise—mean is, deliberate practice of specific skills will get you excellent results. I know I’ll never be as good as I want to be, and my stories may never be great (it isn’t for me to decide), but I promise you, I’ll keep working at it.
Title: Red Envelope
Author: Atom Yang
Publisher: MLR Press
Publication Date: 12/04/2015
Cover Artist: Kris Jacen
Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Fiction, Gay, Gay Fiction, Humor/Comedy, M/M Romance, New Adult, Other Holiday, Romance, Winter Holiday, Young Adult
The Chinese New Year is a time for saying goodbye to the past and hello to the future, but Clint doesn’t want to bid farewell to his cousin’s handsome American friend, Weaver, after they share an unexpected passionate encounter.
Growing up, I lived two lives.
In one life, I watched the same programs and played the same video games as the other kids in my neighborhood. We skated, made friends, got into fights, and did most of our homework. My name was Clint, and I was named after Clint Eastwood because my maternal grandfather loved the TV show, Rawhide, cowboys, and the Wild West (despite how the Chinese were treated during that time and place) and wanted me to have a real American name. I’m grateful they didn’t pick Rowdy.
In my other life, I went to Chinese school on Sundays where my teachers called me by my Chinese name, and I got extra homework on how to be more Chinese. I had to learn to read and write in a language I rarely saw in my daily life, although I spoke and heard it every day from my parents. It was a bummer, but I suppose it made me realize how much being Chinese was about doing Chinese things, and how much being American for me was about doing twice as many things, and being who you are was about doing one thing: staying true to yourself.
Once I understood that, I didn’t live two lives anymore. I lived one.
I called up my mom to make sure I had the family recipe right for mapo tofu. It’s a spicy dish that’s usually made with ground pork, but I told her I was leaving the meat out to offer an option to my favorite aunt and host of the celebration, Shirley, who had become a vegetarian since the death of my uncle last year.
“Your mapo tofu is not vegetarian,” my mother said in Mandarin, “it has garlic in it.”
“Garlic is not slow meat that got stuck in dirt, Ma,” I replied testily in Mandarin. My generation spoke to each other in English, but to our parents and elders, we spoke Chinese.
“I’m not criticizing you, don’t be so sensitive!” my mother shot back. “I’m only telling you so you’ll know. Onions and garlic, they’re not considered vegetarian.”
Yes, I’m going to ask it, because some Chinese ways were foreign to me. “Why are they not considered vegetarian?” I said in a calmer tone. Mea culpa for snapping at my mom.
“Oh, it increases your yang,” she answered.
“Are you saying it makes you, uh, makes you want to, um…” What was the word for horny and sex in Mandarin? I never learned that vocabulary in Chinese school.
“Make love,” she said conspiratorially with a giggle. The words were translated literally from English.
“Ma, that’s silly. I’ve never noticed that when I’ve eaten garlic.”
My mother heaved a dramatic, disyllabic sigh. “Hai-ya, you think you know everything. What about Italians?”
“They’re not all wanting to…make love,” I said, feeling squeamish about using the new words with my mother. “Anyway, I hope Aunt Shirley will eat my tofu.”
My mom laughed again, a sound like wind chimes that’s tickled me as far back as I can remember.
“Don’t say that! Eating someone’s tofu means you are, ah…” She searched for the English word, knowing my limitations, and quickly completed her thought in Chinese: “Touching someone’s body where you should not.”
“Really? Ha! Thanks for letting me know!”
“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. Weaver will be at the celebration.”
At the sound of his name, the laughter in my throat stilled and I found myself annoyed with my mother again. “Weaver is Maggie’s friend.”
“You like talking to him. Every year, since you both were little.”
“Since we were twelve. And I talk to everyone at the party, especially if they’re around my age.”
“Has it been that long? I remember you would talk about him all the way home and for weeks after. He has grown to be such a handsome man, don’t you think?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I mumbled. It’s not that I never noticed Weaver—his brown hair bleached by the sun, lightly toasted skin, and eventual six-foot height made him an easy game of Where’s Waldo in a crowd of my family members. I couldn’t help but notice him, and the way he had grown into his broad shoulders, big hands, and large feet that seemed so awkward when we were boys. It didn’t escape me, the way his square jaw, softer when we were both in middle school, became chiseled over time, and sometimes covered in stubble the color of burnt caramel flecked with ginger and bright gold.
She went on as if I had said nothing. “I love to look into his eyes! They’re so blue, like marbles! It’s so strange!”
My mouth went dryer than the Gobi. I tried to swallow, but failing that, I cleared my throat. “Yes, his eyes are very blue.” They reminded me of sea glass: navy in the evening, like the traditional changshan he wore to last year’s celebration; and the brilliant blue of a summer sky, which I saw on the winter morning before he left.
That morning was the first day of the Lunar New Year, and traditional belief held that the people you see on this first day would be the ones in your life for the rest of the year.
This didn’t turn out to be true.
“I thought you would be happy to know he’s coming back from China to visit. Maggie says he’s met somebody over there.”
My shoulders, which had been trying to say hello to my ears, dropped and I hunched over a little, a boxer weathering a punch. “I’m sure Maggie will be happy to see him,” I said, trying to sound cheerful.
“Okay, I have to…do stuff. Get ready for tonight!”
“Are you upset about something?” My mother was either telepathic or she had secret cameras in my apartment, and I hoped for the latter; I glanced around suspiciously. “Mama knows when you’re unhappy,” she added in a soothing tone when I took too long to answer. When she spoke in the third person, I knew she meant business—there was both a formality and an intimacy when she talked like that; it wasn’t cute like “mommy knows best” or generic like “a mother doesn’t have to guess.” She meant, “I am your mother, you are my son, and I know you because you are a part of me, I raised you, and I want you to be happy.”
Yes, it’s kind of codependent compared to American individualism, but it’s kind of normal in a highly interdependent culture. There was something about her concern for my happiness that formed a lump in my throat, and made me wish I could hug her, tell her my hurts and cry them away on her bosom like I did when I was a child.
My throat tightened as if I had failed Darth Vader for the last time. Shit, my mother was part of my sadness. I couldn’t tell her what happened between Weaver and me after last year’s celebration because she would be upset—and for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to risk losing my relationship with her, and I didn’t think she would try to understand.
“Mama understands you,” she said.
Great, she’s telepathic. Hidden cameras would’ve been nicer. Creepy, sure, but at least my heart would be private.
I took in a controlled breath, hoping that she couldn’t hear on the other end as I ironed flat my emotions.
“I’m okay, don’t worry; a little nervous about making the dish correctly. I’ll see you later tonight.” She was quiet on the other end, and I knew my refusal to share what was bothering me hurt her feelings. And I had lied. “I love you,” I said in English.
We never expressed this to each other in Chinese, because it wasn’t something said in Chinese culture; the emotions were too strong, the words too coarse, and besides, it was assumed that parents and children loved each other. Still, my mother and I, we chose to be indelicately Western with this feeling, which meant we had to say it in our other tongue.
“I love you,” she said in singsong English. She hadn’t given up, and I knew she’d press me again later, or ask one of my relatives to get me to divulge what was bugging me before too long. “Okay, bye-bye!”
“Okay, bye-bye,” I echoed, and hung up, and stood there.
And stood some more.
Weaver was coming back
About Atom Yang
Atom was born to Chinese immigrant parents who thought it’d be a hoot to raise him as an immigrant, too–so he grew up estranged in a familiar land, which gives him an interesting perspective. He’s named after a Japanese manga (comic book) character, in case you were wondering.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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